The Fundamental Purpose of Environmental Ethics

Fairly glad that I wrote this UPI2205: Ethics & The Environment essay the way I envisioned it. Had I listened to my friend's advice, I'd have written an uninspiring piece that panders to the the opinions of the Prof.

In a way, I'm glad that I defended my own ideas even when I may be marked down for it. Some ideas, I realise, are worth asserting.
In the late 1950s, Rachel Louise Carson, an American scientist, turned her attention to the conservation of the natural environment. Her book, “Silent Spring” (1962), explores the toxic effects of pesticide residues and is widely regarded as a rallying point for the fledgling environmental movement. In 1970, the first Earth Day was inaugurated; the next year, the first conference on environmental philosophy was held at the University of Georgia, USA. Since then, ethical questions concerning the treatment of nonhumans became increasingly significant and groundbreaking articles on environmental philosophies were written.

These moral philosophies, drawing from diverse ethical traditions, may be understood according to two broad definitions – anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism. The anthropocentric approaches suggest that any analysis of nature must be human-centered. Social ecology, ecofeminism and weak anthropocentrism are notable examples of such anthropocentric ethics. Their conceptual counterparts, non-anthropocentric paradigms, argue for an appreciation of nature from nonhuman perspectives and can be classified under three main positions – biocentrism, ecocentrism as well as deep ecology.

This development of multiple environmental ethics parallels the rapid industrial growth of nations and the resultant deterioration of nature. Most ethicists – if not all – agree that is it wrong to treat nature without respect, to inflict needless destruction (Nuyen, 2011, p.215). The ecological world desperately needs the damaging human population to adopt an ethics that will reverse, or at least slow down, environmental degradation.

As a member of the natural environment at large and human society in specific, I am morally obliged to contribute to the conservation of Nature. For me, examining this topic is a timely opportunity to develop a personal ethic that encourages the responsible stewardship of the natural environment.

The Values of Nature

Values can be described by many broad terms, inclusive of but not restricted to their utility, aesthetics, origins and essence. My interpretation of what is environmentally ethical cannot be divorced from the values that I attribute to nature. Before I share these values, allow me to generally describe the multifarious values that Nature has.

Subjects that are valuable, in and of themselves, can be described as having intrinsic value. They are cherished ends, not merely means to a valued end. They have non-anthropocentric value. And from the perspectives of non-anthropocentrism, Nature has this intrinsic value which eclipses its homocentric instrumental values. Rolston (1994, p.14), a prominent environmentalist and biocentrist, advocates that intrinsic value is a real property of natural objects and processes, not projected onto nature but discovered there:
“Consider a whooping crane defending its own life, or the wild gardenias synthesizing glucose using photosynthesis, converting this to starch, and storing energy. The animals, sometimes, will be subjects of their own lives, and they too will have their preferences, simplified perhaps, but in some respects more or less like our own. […] Such a living organism is, I maintain, a being with a good of its own.”
The intrinsic value that Nature has cannot be proved,observed or quantified with ease. According to Rolston, nature’s intrinsic value is fully independent of a human valuing consciousness. Individual organisms, species and ecosystems have values which they are both sources and loci of, and people are obliged to respect them.

One flaw of such a non-anthropocentric paradigm stems from its fundamental stance of ascribing nonhuman subjects with “intrinsic worth/biospecies equality” (Devall and Sessions, 1985, p. 146). Biocentrism, for example, argues that all living beings have moral standing; ecocentrism attributes not only living beings but also natural ecosystems with intrinsic value; deep ecologists embrace a quasi-mystical perspective that all things in the biosphere are interdependent and “have an individual right to live and blossom and reach their own forms of unfolding and self-realization” (Devall and Sessions, 1985, p.145). These non-anthropocentric ethics claim that natural properties – such as integrity, beauty and biodiversity – can provide an independent, non-human basis for valuing nature. However, according to skeptics, such qualities are neither intrinsic nor non-anthropocentric. In “A Critique of Anti-Anthropocentric Ethics, Richard Watson (1983, p.157) argues that non-anthropocentric approaches are, in essence, anthropocentric:
“The notion of a climax situation in ecology is a human invention, based on anthropocentric ideas of variety, completion, wholeness and balance. […] What would it be, after all, to think like a mountain as Aldo Leopold is said to have recommended? It would be anthropocentric because mountains do not think, but also because mountains are imagined to be thinking which human interests in their preservation or development they prefer.”
Attributing the environment with non-anthropocentric values requires us to place ourselves in their positions and imagine their viewpoints from our outsider human perspectives; this, ultimately, is a human-centered endeavor. It is “logically impossible”, Nuyen (1981, p.221) maintains, to “know how an animal thinks about itself and about human beings”. Likewise, the genuine feelings of mountains and plants cannot be rationally known. Grey (1993, p. 464) agrees and suggests that if we “attempt to step too far outside the scale of the recognizably human, rather than expanding and enriching our moral horizons, we render them meaningless, or at least almost unrecognizable.”

To ascribe nature with intrinsic value is a contentious approach; due to this arguable attribution of intrinsic value to nature, non-anthropocentrism, at its very core, may not be as non-anthropocentric as it appears to be. The attribution of anthropocentric values, on the other hand, avoids the aforementioned fallacies.

According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1785, p.61), humans alone have self-consciousness; humans are therefore fundamentally different in rank and dignity from all other beings, while nature can be treated as means to human ends. His argument, while somewhat absolute, is representative of the homocentric tendency to appraise a subject with reference to one’s needs and wants. The subject, by itself, is not valuable; it is only valuable because it can be used to accomplish a goal desired by the human valuer and are correspondingly tagged as having instrumental values. In Kantian diction, they are means to an end but not an end in itself. Nature, with its diverse landscapes, animals and plants, can contribute to numerous aspects of human welfare and consequently, has many instrumental uses – it preserves a stockpile of genetic materials that may prove useful in curing diseases or improving crop yields; it allows greater understanding of the intricate biological systems; it purifies air by trapping pollutants. Beyond instrumental uses associated with science, Nature can also be mined for commodities such as precious metals and timber – which have quantifiable economic value – or harnessed as serene places for spiritual rejuvenation and recreational activities (Grey, 1992). These various instrumental values of Nature – be they scientific, economic or entertainment oriented – are extrinsic and can only be realized by exploiting Nature’s utility. In these examples, Nature is only valuable because of the substantial benefits it offers. It is treasured due to the anthropocentric values that it has. The values that Nature may possess are the subject of much robust debate. In the following sections, I will reflect on my experience with this discipline of environmental ethics.

My Personal Experiences with Nature

As I wondered about the values that I would attribute to Nature and how my personal environmental ethics would be like, I was somewhat befuddled and did not know where to begin. My past journal entries became a starting point for my introspection. On Dec 27, 2010, after traipsing through Brunei’s rainforest and floating atop Vietnam’s saltwater bay, I wrote an entry for my online journal:

For moments like this, some people wait a lifetime.

I remember that one time when I stood on the top of the mountain in Brunei. In the distance, the emerald green sea of trees merged with the sapphire waters. The air was so achingly clean, so unfamiliarly refreshing.

I had felt small but not powerless, insignificant yet content. It was a commune with Nature.

At that instance, everything faded into obscurity. Nothing mattered - not money, not work, not studies. Nothing mattered except for the complete awareness of something powerful, deeply ancient and omniscient.

I felt loved simply because I wasn't judged or evaluated or appraised. I didn't feel like I'm an individual. I felt as though I was part of the greater cosmos; a mere speck but nevertheless, a part.

In Vietnam's Ha Long Bay, the same feeling revisited.

Bobbing within the bay of serene waters, surrounded by natural monuments... One could simply hear the alluring whispers of Nature. The tapestry of stars weaving throughout the void above - individually pretty, collectively impressive - delighted.

The sense of self disintegrated and merged with the beauty beyond.

Even in Singapore, within the forests of Ubin or atop the tidebreakers of East Coast, one may enjoy the same feelings. Even within the soulless concrete jungles, one may turn one's face skywards and revel in a cloudy panorama.

Each commune with Nature is profound and enlightening. Each time is different and yet, enchantingly similar.

On October 29, 2010, I was frustrated with the lack of breakthroughs in my art. I took some time off, went out and saw the clouds:

Am taken aback by the spools of cotton wefting across the azure skies.

Clouds are beautiful. They were, are and will be continue to be beautiful. But today's clouds, they are special.

They stretch endlessly across the skies, little pristine patches of white against a dainty china blue. It is absolutely breathtaking.

Once, when I was feeling frustrated with drawing, someone told me to look at clouds and be dazzled by them. "The clouds that God painted." Today, as I am immersing myself in these fluffy joys, I recall this friend's words.

A sea of patchy whiteness unfolds forward and backward endlessly.

It seems to be a good way to meditate, to look at the skies above and feel their ancient wisdom flowing through every fiber. Nothing matters, not to these clouds.

They float along, peacefully, serenely. They want for nothing.

In the greater context of life, many things we feel are important may actually only appear to be important. Cloudy steps.

There's no need for a resolute approach/ intellectual rigour when viewing clouds.

Simply look at them, appreciate their beauty and step away from the mindless races.

I had felt an internal conflict as I examined this debate between anthropocentrists and non-anthropocentrists. As a Science student, I am concerned with logic and sense; anthropocentrists’ claims, based soundly on intellectual reasoning, are persuasive. Logically, I agree with the numerous arguments against the attribution of intrinsic value to Nature.

However, like most people, I am not only rational; I am intuitive too. The privileges of being in different natural biospheres, including Brunei’s primary rainforest and Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, have created an appreciation of Nature that logic alone cannot explain. Emotionally, I find it difficult to agree that the calm peace inspired by the natural surroundings is simply an anthropocentric reaction. As Blaise Pascal, a French physicist and theologian once said, “le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point,” which may be translated loosely as, “my heart has reasons that Reason knows not”. There is a beauty in our natural environment that I cannot comprehend aptly with logic and that homocentric perspectives cannot emotionally justify. To me, this debate between anthropocentrists and non-anthropocentrists may be boiled down to a discussion of the logic/intuition dualism. Anthropocentrists have attacked non-anthropocentric ethics for their internal logical fallacies, claiming that they are essentially anthropocentric (Watson, 1983, p.157). At the other end of the spectrum, drawing from theological and intuitive grounds, non-anthropocentrists claim that it is “morally arrogant” to ascribe values solely from the human vantage (Naess, 1989, p. 187). For many years, these two contrary positions could not be reconciled for they were arguing on different fronts. It is akin to comparing the seas with the skies: both are so different that it is difficult to seek a common ground. From a perspective based on sound logic, Nature has anthropocentric values; from an intuitive standpoint, nature possesses non-anthropocentric values. Neither environmental philosophy is more right than the other; both make sense in fundamentally distinct and incomparable ways. Debating these philosophies is important for it broadens our ethical considerations but we should not be caught up in the debate and miss the forest for the trees. All environmental philosophies, in essence, agree that our collective natural heritage is threatened and aim to conserve it. The approaches may be different, but the intentions, same.

Our Present Predicament

What are we to do – we who are properly sceptical and scientific minded – with this intrinsic value that cannot be quantified with ease? We cannot touch this force. We have no decent way of measuring it. Yet, it exists. Intuitively, we know it is real. Are we to operate with tunnel vision and ignore it because it does not fit in easily with accepted concepts of reason? To do so seems perilous. I do not think we can hope to approach a full understanding of Nature and mankind’s position in it without incorporating and acknowledging the presence of intrinsic value in our conceptual framework. Yet, we cannot reject the arguments that non-anthropocentrists raise. I am, therefore, reluctant to identify myself as an anthropocentrist or non-anthropocentrist. Nature, I submit, may be appreciated from both positions by the same individual at the same time. From the position of carefully-reasoned logic, I am anthropocentric; a quiet sense of intuition, however, swayed me to the perspectives of non-anthropocentrism. On distinct, incomparable levels, I subscribe to the tenets of both environmental philosophies. I see no need to situate myself on either side of this logic/intuition-anthropocentric/non-anthropocentric argument. I do not see this as an either/or dualism and wish to avoid being labeled as a biocentrist, weak anthropocentrist or social ecologist.

While there are key conceptual distinctions between disparate environmental ethics, there is a need to recognize that they share a common goal – that of conserving our natural environment. My personal environmental ethics allow me to combine the best traits from both anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric perspectives; it may be vulnerable to criticisms, but it provides sufficient impetus for me to contribute to the fundamental purpose of environmental ethics. Outsiders may view this simultaneous attribution of both anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric values as contradictory but I see this as being compatible on different levels. By drawing on sentiments from both paradigms, I have adapted an environmental ethics that has strong logical reasoning and, at the same time, appeal to my intuition.

There should be an agreement that the human society is pluralistic and comprises of individuals with differing perspectives; there is room enough to accommodate divergent environmental ethics. What is critical is that each should seek to develop a personal ethics that will encourage a lasting appreciation of Nature. Nature, with its pristine tracts of fauna and flora, requires our responsible stewardship. By accepting and appreciating the nuances of various values ascribed to it, influential stakeholders – including environmentalists, companies and governments – can understand perspectives divergent from theirs and, with this awareness, cooperate to promote a more harmonious relationship with Nature. Leopold (1949, p. 217), an ecologist who campaigned for wilderness conservation, rationalizes: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Leopold’s statement reflects the two views that most may have of Nature. It may be reinterpreted through the lenses of consequentialism; a central tenet of this philosophy implies that it does not matter how societies view Nature – be it as a commodity to be managed or a community to respect – as long as they work towards protection of their emerald treasures. By acknowledging that different values exist and recognizing that individuals are free to ascribe these diverse values to Nature, there is a common basis for collective action.

At this time of writing, the British Broadcasting Channel (BBC) reports that no wild black rhinos remain in West Africa, a subspecies of white rhino in central Africa is possibly extinct and the last Javan rhino in Vietnam was poached and has passed away. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) discovers that, despite conservation efforts, 25% of the world’s mammals are at risk of extinction. Meanwhile, the degradation of natural systems continues. Statistics, as reported by National Geographic, paint a grim picture. More than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests have already been destroyed; up to 90% of West Africa’s coastal rain forests have disappeared since 1900; Brazil and Indonesia, which contain the world’s two largest surviving regions of rainforests, are being stripped at an alarming rate for agriculture, cattle-grazing and mining.

Given our current predicament, it is critical for environmental ethicists to work together to protect the environment. Yes, it is important to expand our moral horizons by debating environmental ethics, but it is pressing to conserve whatever natural organisms and places that now tether on the edge of disappearance. There is an agreement that Nature is valuable, albeit in different, incomparable ways. There is an agreement that environmental destruction is occurring at unprecedented and unsustainable rates and must be halted.

What Rachel Carson said in April, 1963, remains relevant today. Not long after “Silent Spring” was published and became a bestseller, she stood in front of an estimated 15 million Americans on a CBS program and said:
“I think we’re challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.”
It is time for ethicists with divergent environmental philosophies to agree to disagree and collaborate to reverse environmental damages. Certain aspects of nature, once destroyed, may never exist again.


Anonymous. 2011. Human Impact – Deforestation and Desertification. National Geographic. Retrieved from:

Boettcher, Daniel. 2011. Western black rhino declared extinct. British Broadcasting Channel. Retrieved from:

Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin.

Devall, Bill and Sessions, George. 1985. Deep Ecology. Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, Sixth Edition, p. 143 – 148.

Grey, William. 1992. The Value of Wilderness. The Trumpeter, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Summer 86)

Holmes, Rolston III. 1994. Value In Nature And The Nature of Value. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, pg 13-30.

Kant, Immanuel. 1785. Rational beings alone have moral worth. Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, Sixth Edition, p.61.

Leopold, Aldo. 1949. The Land Ethic: A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press Inc, p. 217.

Naess, Arne. 1989. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, First Edition, p. 187.

Nuyen, Anh Tuan. 1981. An Anthropocentric Ethics Towards Animals and Nature. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, p. 215 – 223.

Watson, Richard. 1983. A Critique of Anti-Anthropocentric Ethics. Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, Sixth Edition, p. 156 – 163.